Booking uphill in Bunkyo

by Kit Nagamura

Walkers in Bunkyo Ward won’t get far before their legs let them know the place has hills — lots of them. A Bunkyo Civic Center official concurs: “We’ve named 113 slopes, but there are even more.”

The Civic Center towers over Suidobashi like a colossal Pez candy dispenser, and from its free 25th-floor observation deck, some of the more famous hills are visible. To the west, Tomizaka (Wealth Hill) leads up to Denzu-in, which dates from 1415 and was a favorite temple of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Then running down to the Kanda River there’s Andozaka (Ando’s Hill), where Edo Period (1603-1868) fishermen used to dry their nets. But to best experience Bunkyo Ward’s unique topography, you simply have to hoof it.

Bunkyo, which means “literature capital,” harbors within its neat 11.3-sq.-km confines a whole microcosm of literati, from printers (think Toppan), to publishers (Kodansha, among others), and the former addresses of famous writers such as Kafu Nagai, Natsume Soseki, Edogawa Rampo, Enchi Fumiko and Miyazawa Kenji. North of the Civic Center, Kikuzaka (Chrysanthemum Hill) was once home to author Ichiyo Higuchi. Famous military physician and author Mori Ogai spent the last three decades of his life near Dangozaka (Dumpling Hill) in Sendagi. Even Iijinzaka (Barbarian Hill) in Yayoi was named for Meiji Period (1868-1912) foreign professors who traipsed up and down it en route to Tokyo Imperial University (today’s University of Tokyo).

Despite being a pain in the calves, Bunkyo’s slopes offer lush reminders of Edo’s early days, when the Kanda River was re-engineered as a canal to supply the city with drinking water. Many daimyo (feudal lords) settled north of the aqueduct, and though their homes are long gone, their gardens remain.

Of these, the designated cultural asset of Koishikawa Korakuen is a must-see. The sprawling grounds were designed in 1629 by Ieyasu Tokugawa’s 11th son, Yorifusa of the Mito clan. Finished decades later by his son, Mitsukuni, it features Japanese and Chinese elements, various bridge styles, still and moving water features and open vistas that make it worth seeking out the somewhat elusive entrance (start your hunt from the Oedo Line’s Iidabashi Station, exit C3).

As though in tribute to Mitsukuni, a famed gourmet, the garden’s onsite restaurant, Kantokutei, has fantastic lunch sets for just over ¥600. I shared a table with a gentleman who warned me the fish sells out fast. Mere minutes past noon, I nabbed the last simmered snapper.

The name Korakuen is said to come from a Chinese proverb that suggests it’s best to “work now and play later.” Children will do both simultaneously when they harvest rice in the garden (Sept. 20, 9:30 a.m.) — and the public is welcome to watch.

However, Korakuen’s best-known feature is “The Big Egg,” or Tokyo Dome. There are 55,000 seats beneath the stadium’s famous puffy roof, a structure supported by pressurized air. Since 1988, Tokyo Dome, home to the Yomiuri Giants, has hosted baseball games, concerts and all manner of exhibitions. Meanwhile, the amusement park and shops of nearby Tokyo Dome City are filled with the screams of Thunder Dolphin roller-coaster victims and the sighs of “ladies who LaQua” at the eponymous hot-spring spa.

Bunkyo Ward has a smattering of pocket-size specialty museums, such as Ochanomizu’s Origami Kaikan (7 minutes north of the station, with washi-paper shop [hand-molded paper] and classes) and The Little Music Box Museum (2 minutes from Gokokuji Station). But take me out to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, wedged right inside Tokyo Dome. It has more uniforms, signed balls, and gloves than you can wave a stick at, and even katto-bashi souvenir chopsticks beautifully fashioned from bats broken during play.

Ever wondered what author Yukio Mishima, physicist Leo Esaki and architect Kenzo Tange have in common? They all studied at the hugely prestigious University of Tokyo, or Todai as it’s known, which was founded in 1877 and is just north of Tokyo Dome. The Hongo campus, built on land owned in the 1600s by Maeda Daimyo, features the Akamon (Red Gate), which was built in 1827 to welcome a Tokugawa bride into the Maeda family. Those who pass through the gates these days are mostly married to their books, but nearly all appreciate the jade gem sunk in the center of the campus: Sanshiro Pond.

The trip down to the pond’s edge, with its waterfalls and precipitous, slippery paths, can be treacherous, but 5 minutes into the overgrown woods, classrooms and city noises vanish. The surrounding Ikutoku-en (Virtue-nurturing Garden) was designed by Toshitune Maeda in 1630, and Sanshiro Pond was shaped, and named, for the Chinese character kokoro (heart). Its current sobriquet was derived from Natsume Soseki’s coming-of-age novel “Sanshiro,” the story of a country-boy Todai freshman encountering the modern world.

At the water’s edge, early autumn leaves catch glints of sun, and it is a lovely place to reflect. I paused in tribute to the late Edward Seidensticker, whose work on the transition of Edo to modern Tokyo in his book “Low City, High City” is often in my backpack as I walk.

Leaving Todai via the Yayoi gates, great wooden barriers set with what look like giant ninja throwing stars, brings you out into the Nezu neighborhood, once a “licensed quarter” thought dangerously tantalizing to affluent students. Today, Nezu Shrine is one of Tokyo’s oldest wooden structures, renown for dazzling azaleas in spring and chrysanthemums in autumn.

West of Nezu, Todai’s Koishikawa Botanical Garden is home to “living fossil” Metasequoia trees, a rabble of black swallowtail butterflies, Japan’s oldest medicinal herb garden (dating from 1684) and a purple potato-shaped stone dedicated to Aoki Konyo’s successful cultivation of the sweet potato in 1735.

Rikugien (Six Poems Garden) is another standout Japanese work, this by Tokugawa retainer Yoshiyasu Yanagizawa. In the northern tip of Bunkyo Ward, it is a prime place to view autumn’s fire reflected in island-studded ponds.

To the west, Gokokuji’s perch once afforded the 1697 temple a view of Edo Castle. Built by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi to honor his mother, the temple holds the Toshimagaoka Imperial Mausoleum, resting place of several Imperial Family members. Threading between gravestones, I was surprised to come across an impromptu performance by 35-year-old dancer and choreographer Tomoko Hirata, whose sinuous moves seemed to meld with the sounds of summer insects. Cameraman Yasuda Kei was filming her as part of his video series on the beauty of Bunkyo Ward’s back alleys.

But there’s no escaping Bunkyo’s hills. A sturdy climb up Edogawa Park in the southwest corner of the ward — near the hermitage where poet Matsuo Basho spent several years in the 1670s tending the Kanda Aqueduct — takes you to what remains of Camellia Mountain. The former estate of Prince Arimoto Yamagata is now the wedding hotel facility Four Seasons Chinzan-so (yours truly tied the knot there), but the steeply terraced gardens are open to the public. At the top, check out architect Kenzo Tange’s St. Mary’s Cathedral across the street. If you have any breath left after the climb and all the hills, this will take it away.